On Saturday, December 5th, at 5am I stood at the starting line of the North Face Endurance Challenge Gore-Tex 50 Mile Championship in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. At 3:51pm, I leapt over the finish line and a triumphant roar issued from deep in my runner’s soul.
Here is what happened in between.
Actually, let me back up a few hours. At 2am, the alarm on my i-phone chimed me awake. I was out of bed in a flash and, with all my gear having been laid out the night before, I was out the door by 2:30.
At 3am I was climbing aboard a big yellow school bus that would shuttle me to the start. By 4:45am I had stripped off my sweats and stood shivering in a pack of runners labeled “Wave 4.” At 5:04am, we began to run.
The weather was much colder than last year, the moon was nowhere near last year’s plump fullness, but the sky was mostly clear. No rain. We wave 4 runners trotted out in an expectant and charged silence. So many headlamps pierced the darkness that, much as I had last year, I did not bother to turn mine on.
We set a measured pace as the course began mostly flat, turning from pavement to groomed trail. When we hit the first hill, many runners wisely dropped to a walk knowing that 50 miles is a long way, a long day. Knowing that uphill is my strength and feeling the incline was relatively mild, I chose to continue running. As the grade became steeper, I too began a vigorous power hike. My goal for the day was to run when it seemed prudent and “stride with purpose” when the incline proved too extreme for real running.
I sailed through the first several miles. Up a solid climb (roughly 900 feet) and down a fairly steep descent, we runners came into the first of the day’s aid stations: Bobcat Water Stop (5.7 miles). With a hydration pack packed with goodies and 40 oz of H2O on my back, I cruised through without stopping. I felt good, just a few little twinges here and there as my body began to warm up and I tried to settle into a rhythm.
There was another climb not long after the aid station and I dropped into my purposeful hiking almost immediately. This climb led quickly to another descent that brought us to the Tennessee Valley aid station (mile 8.7) and the first of four passes at my drop bags. I paused long enough for half an almond butter & jam sandwich and a long slug of cold coffee.
This next section of the race flew by in a blur of beauty as the sun began to paint the sky in pinks and purples. Headlamps were off, but the sun had yet to peek above the surrounding hills. Some climbs, some descents, and gorgeous views as the trail skimmed above the Pacific Ocean. We were afforded a quick glimpse of Pirate’s Cove and then cruised into the Muir Beach aid station (mile 12.7).
I grabbed a quick cup of electrolyte sauce in a bizarre pink color and breezed out. Let me mention here, and probably not for the last time, how completely drop-dead amazing the volunteers are for this race. Friendly, helpful, and supportive are mere words. These folks are angels.
Up next was the climb to Cardiac. Last year, with torrential rains in the days before the race, the infamous switchbacks were quite literally turned into a flowing stream. Many, many racers fell in this muddy quagmire both on the accent and later when descending this section. Last year, my mid-pack fellows and I mostly walked up this section. For me, this was due to the high traffic and lack of passing room.
This year, I intended to run the switchbacks. They are, in my opinion, deceptively NOT steep. Yes, the hill itself is extremely steep and quite a bit of elevation is gained over a short distance, but the switchbacks themselves are fairly tame. So I ran.
I reached the Cardiac aid station (mile 17.9) feeling amazing and fresh and ready to tackle the next section of trail. This was another bag drop location, so I paused to eat another half of a sandwich and a handful of dark chocolate covered espresso beans, along with another long slug of cold coffee. I added a quick sip of electrolyte, the weird pink color again, and chatted for a moment with an angel in a puffy jacket. She was cold, but enthusiastically cheering us runners. Another champion volunteer!
The next section of the race course is fairly flat (yeah!) but also features a very narrow single track out and back section. Outgoing runners (me at this point) have to “yield” to returning runners for what seems like MILES as the terrain is a steep drop off to the left and basically a wall of grass/dirt to the right. The reward for this is the McKennan Gulch aid station (mile 22.8) and another wonderful group of volunteers. I had a quick sip of electrolyte (clear this time!) and headed out.
I don’t remember much of the next section. I was cruising happily along, munching a lara bar or sucking a Clif Shot gel every 40 minutes or so and sucking water though a tube. It was bliss.
Last year this section was memorable because it is a steep descent filled with switchbacks and stairs. My knees hurt so badly last year that I walked a significant portion of downhill trail. Not this year. No pain meant I ran the whole thing and made pretty good time.
After a long descent, we came into the Stinson Beach aid station (mile 27.8). More smiling volunteers, more electrolyte (pink again), and I was off.
I have to admit that I was…concerned? Worried? Nervous? Some combination of all three? This next section up part of the Dipsea Trail was brutal for me last year and if I hadn’t found a trio of talkative runners to latch onto, I’m not sure how I would have made it through.
This year? I power hiked the steep up hills, ran when I was able, and never really suffered. With a much smoother go than last year, I found myself back at the Cardiac aid station (mile 30.5).
This proved to be my longest stop of the day. I ate the other half of my sandwich, scarfed a couple handfuls of espresso beans, took another long swig of coffee, had more of the electrolyte, and took a moment to chat with another wonderful volunteer who clued me into the Muir Woods section of the race.
Last year, due to the rain storms in the days before the race, there was a bridge washed out and a tree knocked down, forcing the course to be altered, skipping Muir Woods. This would be my first time through this section. My new friend warned me of steep descents and steeper climbs. I smiled, nodded a quick thanks, and turned to exit the aid station. Noticing a trio of blue porta-potties, my body informed me that this would be the perfect time for a break.
After nature’s call had been answered, I plunged down a now heavily wooded trail and began the steep descent into Muir Woods. This is an absolutely gorgeous section of trail and one that I am thrilled I finally got to experience. I have spent countless hours hiking the trails through Muir Woods over the years and now I have raced them!
Before long, I had settled in silently behind a fire fighter and a retired Navy Seal who were also running the race, allowing their conversation and our muted footfalls to carry me forward. This section was fairly technical in parts and I was glad to have their voices to distract me just enough so I could ignore the creeping fatigue in my legs and focus on the task at hand.
As the trail began to climb again, I thanked them both for letting me tag along, and powered up the next ascent with a purposeful stride. A long descent later and I was cruising into the Old Inn aid station (mile 36.3). I was feeling the hours and miles, weariness settled into my legs. For the first time during the race, I was doing poorly. Trouble was brewing.
Thankfully, the next section of the race was mostly flat and I was able to latch on to other runners, forcing myself to maintain pace, and I found myself back at the Muir Beach aid station (40 miles) once again. Fatigue was setting in as my body reacted to the miles and hours, but it still felt manageable at this point. I paused only long enough to take in a little electrolyte. This, it turns out, was a significant error and a considerable miscalculation.
Coming out of Muir Beach, runners are met with what appears to be an endless climb. It is a very steep, rough fire road that is also visually intimidating as you can see far, far ahead and it is all up…up…up. Roughly 1000 feet of climbing over two miles. I was beginning to suffer general exhaustion along with significant leg pain, but I felt confident I would finish strong. Relentless forward progress. Keep the legs moving, the arms pumping, and the finish line is inevitable.
But, with a seemingly endless climb in my sights, it was at this point that I descended into what some runners call the “pain cave” or the “hurt locker.”
I was ready to DNF.
All I had to do was somehow traverse another four miles of unforgiving trail, limp into the next aid station, and say three magic words:
I’m dropping out.
They say ultras are more eating contest than race. It was beginning to dawn on me that I had underestimated my body’s need for both water and calories. I was a bit late in seeing the signs. My legs were hurting. My quads felt like they were tearing away from my leg bones. In a matter of just a few strides, my spirit was utterly shattered. My mood was black as pitch. And I was freezing. The day was on the chilly side and all this walking had cooled me off. It was difficult for me to grasp the why of it, I was too caught up in the suffering part. But I knew I’d screwed up. I needed fuel.
Food? No, no way was I going to eat. My stomach roiled at the very idea.
Water? My pack had a few ounces, which I quickly consumed, but I had failed to add to it at the last aid station.
The climb seemed endless. No way could I finish. I had, maybe, enough left in me to make it to the next aid station and then I was dropping, climbing on the shuttle, and my DNF would be “Did Nothing Fatal.”
My first DNF. Ever. But that was okay, everyone has “that race” where things fell apart. It was normal. Human. Natural. It would be a learning experience…right?
I pulled out my phone and called home.
“Don’t bother coming to the finish line,” I told my wife. “I’m dropping out at the next aid station.”
“Why? What happened? Where are you?”
“I feel like death. I’m in the middle of that brutal climb…about 41 miles.”
“Well, that’s the worst part, right? You made it last year, you can do it again this year,” she said.
Silence on my end.
“Why don’t you get to the top and see how you feel. Call me in an hour. You can do this.”
Nah, I thought after getting off the phone. I’m dropping out at the next aid station.
I struggled up the hill. Made it to the top. Had a runnable descent before me. Just two miles to the aid station. All downhill from here.
And I walked.
Until…a guy I had run with earlier in the race ran past me and said, “looking good!”
What a wonderful lie and I can’t thank him enough.
“I’m done,” I replied.
He just shook his head and said, “nah.”
And then I started running. Not fast, but actual running. For the first time in what seemed like a long time, I was running.
But my plans hadn’t changed. I was still dropping.
I ran into the Tennessee Valley aid station (mile 44) and straight up to the buffet. A kind volunteer in a Santa hat offered me some water. His name was Dave. I asked for something hot, as I was still chilled, and as I drank the broth, I informed Dave the Santa Angel that I was thinking about dropping.
“No way!” Dave replied. “You look great! You’ll make it. Just take a minute, rest for a bit.”
So I did. I drank three cups of water. I sat down at a picnic table and ate half an almond butter sandwich. I ate several handfuls of dark chocolate covered espresso beans.
And I watched. I watched the volunteer Angels helping each and every runner passing through. I watched as a little kid wearing a “pacer” bib left the aid station with his dad. I watched as the school bus shuttle pulled into the aid station, ready to ferry volunteers and crews and cheering fans (and DNF’ers) back to the start line.
Then I stood up. I drank another cup of water.
“I’m taking your advice, Dave,” I said to the Santa Angel. “I’m gonna keep going.”
“There you go,” he said. And I was gone.
Up another climb (the 2nd to last, according to Dave). Six miles to go. I was seriously power hiking with a vengeance.
Half way up the next hill, I caught up to the kid and his dad. I smiled and said hello to them both.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Ten,” the boy replied.
“You a runner?” I asked.
“Nope, just a pacer,” he replied.
I smiled again. And I started to run. Up this second to last hill. Climbing 900 feet in just over a mile, I had returned from the dead. I was going to finish.
The up hill ended. I ran the descent faster than I had run in probably 10 or 15 miles. There was a short, last climb which I tackled with a combination of running and power hiking. Half way up, an emotional damn burst and I started laughing and crying at the same time. Just like last year, only four miles later.
Joy. Pure joy. I did it. I beat this course, again.
And just like that, I was at the Alta aid station (mile 47). It was almost all down hill from that point. And I ran fast. Probably the fastest three mile stretch of the entire race.
No. Not probably. Definitely.
I covered the last three miles in about 22 minutes.
I was a completely different person. The pain was gone. The suffering was gone. I was filled with a lightness I cannot explain. I was flying.
I reached the finish line, leapt over the timing mat, and landed with an earth shattering boom.
I paused as another volunteer angel hung the finishers medal around my neck.
Then I bellowed out a wordless snarl. Something powerful and defiant coursed through me like electricity. I clenched my fists and growled.
I beat you, I thought. You thought you had me this time, but I beat you.
This sudden, unexpected savagery was unprecedented and I let it consume me. I basked in the glow of my victory. I was transformed. And another wolf-like howl escaped me.
I think Walt Whitman said it best:
I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
I growled again, grabbed a banana, and prowled toward the post-race buffet.
Race on, Sisters and Brothers!